Monday, May 2, 2016

From the time of Adam, prohibition did not work; awareness campaigns may help, politics won't

Does banning liquor really bring in the votes? We can imagine women feeling relieved that men won't come home drunk and create scenes. But female population is falling notoriously in India, so the votes gained from happy women will be less than the votes lost through resentful men. This is why it is difficult to understand why there is a race among states to declare total prohibition. Vote-wise it doesn't make sense. Revenue-wise it makes nonsense: Bihar will lose 3000 crore a year, 18 percent of its total revenue and Tamil Nadu as much as 30,000 crore, more than a quarter of its revenue. Kerala will lose 6000 crore, although its population is only 35 million compared to Bihar's 94 million.(For the typical Malayali, it's a matter of honour that once a bottle is opened, it must be finished quickly. Per capita consumption of alcohol is highest in Kerala).

Commonsense-wise, prohibition not only does not work; it produces contrary effects. This is because prohibition can only ban liquor; it cannot ban the demand for liquor. Such is the chemistry of the human mind that whenever there is demand, it will be met by supply. Which explains why prohibition has not worked anywhere at any time in history. There is a saying that prohibition did not work even in the Garden of Eden; Adam ate the apple that was forbidden.

The most tragic example of prohibition's counterproductive nature was Bombay under chief minister Morarji Desai in the 1950s. As a Gandhian, he introduced prohibition with conviction. Overnight Bombay's suburbs burst into underground activity. Such was the profitability of the illicit industry that crime syndicates got a stranglehold on life in Bombay. Unintentionally Morarji Desai made it possible for Haji Mastan and Karim Lala and, yes, Dawood Ibrahim to rise. In the official celebration of Prohibition Week every year, the liquor mafia was the most enthusiastic participant.

Gujarat has been under total prohibition for decades now. No one complains because truckloads of liquor arrive from neighbouring states every day to ensure that demand is met by supply. Besides, excise, transport and police officials are always kept happy. Prohibition is a great lubricant.

It is clear that for the Morarji Desais of the world, prohibition is an article of faith, an unviolable principle of life. For today's leaders it is politics. Nowhere is this more evident than in Kerala. For the state Congress President, V.M.Sudheeran, a local edition of Morarji Desai, prohibition is a living tenet. When the closing of bars in the state became a big issue with cases going to the Supreme Court, he took a stand against the re-opening of some 400-plus closed bars. This did not sit well with the excise minister who, neck-deep in scandals, was a confidante of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. As Sudheeran's opposition to the bars looked like making him a popular hero, the tactician in Chandy announced a sudden policy change: Total prohibition in Kerala in a few years. It was a game of political oneupmanship. It turned into a farce as verbal battles became the focus of attention and Chandy's excise minister devised new ways to please bar owners.

In 1995 then chief minister A.K.Antony banned arrack. Consumption of liquor did not go down by a drop. The flow of illicit brews increased as did the flow of hafta. Registers and computer floppies maintained by smart liquor contractors revealed that in the Trichur area alone Rs 14,000 was going to an assistant excise commissioner, 7500 to an excise inspector, 4000 to a preventive officer, 2700 to an assistant excise inspector and 3500 to a circle inspector every month, in addition to "bonuses" on occasions like marriages. Prohibition promotes bribery as nothing else does.

Public awareness campaigns are the only practical way to tackle the universal social problem of alcohol. Such campaigns have shown results in the case of smoking. A state-funded national advertising campaign in the US called "Tips from former smokers" claimed significant success. The state can create conditions that will enable civil society also to participate in action plans against alcohol. A pro-active government can enforce two policies -- ensure that there will be no demand for spurious liquor, and impose deterrent punishments for offences such as drunken driving. Policies based on mere sentiment will get us nowhere. Abraham Lincoln explained why: "Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a mass appetite by legislation and make a crime out of things that are not crimes".

Monday, April 25, 2016

70-lakh watch, 1-crore car, 125 feet vs 125 feet; the greater the power, the bigger the abuse

Lord Acton was constrained by Anglo-Saxon sensibilities when he coined the world's most quoted quote: Power corrupts etcetera. That truism does not do justice to Bharatiya political samskruti to which constraints are alien. In our system, irrespective of whether the rulers are saints or sinners, power doesn't just corrupt. It releases primal emotions that spin in every impossible direction. Even pretensions of propriety have no relevance.

Recent headlines show how luridly delightful primal emotions can get. Karnataka's Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is an old-school socialist who always wears simple white kurta and veshti. But he was found wearing also a diamond-studded wrist watch costing 70 lakh rupees. It then transpired that he had a collection that included Rolex and Andemars Piguet watches, one-lakh-rupee sunglasses and Hermes/Louis Vuitton shoes. Impeccable taste.

That is the magic of power. It produces visions of stylishness and sophistication in the minds of men who are neither stylish nor sophisticated by nature. They do things because they can. Ideologies and party colours make no difference. The man who believes he is going to be the next chief minister of Karnataka did exactly what the ruling chief minister did. B.S.Yeddyurappa was only appointed president of the state BJP -- and the first thing he did was to acquire a one-crore-rupee car. He had to drive long distances to inspect the drought areas, he said. Ditto with Siddaramaiah who too had to inspect the drought areas. Municipal lorries used scarce water to wet the roads so that the neta wouldn't have to breathe the dust citizens lived with.

Such is the impact of power that even sons, daughters and sundry relatives suddenly feel that the world is at their disposal. Mamata Bannerjee's nephew threatened policemen -- and policemen kowtowed before him. A minister's son was caught speeding in a fabulous Porsche in Hyderabad a week ago. It took some effort for the police to seize the car. The VIP son went his way, probably to drive a Lamborgini. A police chief's minor son was photographed driving a car in Kerala recently. Nothing happened to the son or the father or the holy car.

The flaunting of power can sometimes take on farcical hues. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu recently announced plans to put up a 125-foot Ambedkar statue on the banks of the Krishna river. In no time Telengana Chief Minister K.Chandrasekhar Rao laid the foundation stone of what he called "the tallest Ambedkar statue" in the country. But this too was to be 125 feet high, just as Chandrababu's. How then could it be the tallest? Perhaps Rao will make it, as a last minute surprise, 125 feet and one inch. Or may be Telengana will develop a new measuring system with 13 inches to a foot. Power can achieve anything.

Maybe all of us will let primal emotions flow if we get the power to spend other people's money. After all, what is it that makes Lalit Modi and Vijay Mallya so successful in life? For a half-hour programme, Lalit Modi once went to Nagpur. He wanted a particular model limousine to ride from the airport to his programme spot and back. That model was not available in Nagpur. So one was hired in Hyderabad and driven to Nagpur to serve Lalit Modi for his half-hour engagement. Vijay Mallya borrowed money from banks and used it to buy mansions for him in foreign lands. These are wealthy men who keep their own money safe, and play with your money and mine. That is power.

Corruption is a privilege of power. Those who exercise it, from police constables to ministers, are genuinely convinced that they have the right to do what seizes their fancy. Municipal authorities in Bangalore once stopped collecting garbage from the city's cricket ground because the cricket authorities did not give them as many free passes to the season's matches as they wanted. A security guard in the Bangalore Club was beaten up because he asked for the entry pass of a police officer's car.

Power rides in a world where ego is the ruling deity. Money is just a means to massage the ego. Lalit Modi, a fugitive from his country's law, threatens legal action if his writ is defied in Rajasthan's cricket stadium. That is what power does to people. It blinds them to reality. It justifies itself. The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse. No passion robs the human mind as completely as power does. Pity 'tis 'tis true.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The glory of Tibet and the tragedy of Tibetans; A scholarly book puts them in perspective

India has always been in a lose-lose situation vis a vis Tibet. And China always in a win-win situation. Which means that, in realpolitik terms, the Tibetan refugees of today will remain refugees for ever and Tibetan Buddhism will never again have a home of its own. The plight of the displaced Tibetans has attracted world attention because of the international respect the present Dalai Lama has won with his humanity and championship of peace. But after him?

India has always been handicapped by a cultural inability to understand the intricacies of Tibetan politics and mores. On the other hand, China's perception of Tibet as part of its geography and history has remained constant during the era of the emperors, the interregnum of Chiang Kaishek's nationalism and the triumphalist communism of Mao Zedong.

In 1956 when the Dalai Lama visited Bombay, Delhi directed Governor M.C.Chagla to serve the guest strict vegetarian fare. Chagla arranged a grand thali-style dinner at the state banquet. The next morning the ADC conveyed a message to the Governor that the Dalai Lama would like to have kidney and sausages for breakfast. "So much for Delhi's knowledge about the culinary habits and tastes of important visitors", noted Chagla in his autobiography Roses in December.

Delhi's knowledge of diplomatic delicacies was no better. In October 1950, as Tibet's attempt to strike a deal with the new communist rulers of China came to nothing, China invaded Tibet and paused at Chamdo. India had two options. It chose the first, apparently at the behest of the then foreign policy boss Girja Shankar Bajpai, and sent a strongly worded protest note to Peking. The Chinese replied by calling India a "running dog of Anglo-American imperialism". Thereupon India adopted its second option, proposed by K.M.Panikkar, ambassador to China. The position now was that India should make a gesture of friendship towards the new communist country by not opposing the occupation of Tibet. (The official Indian note mentioned that India recognised the sovereignty of China over Tibet. It turned out that the word intended was suzerainty, but sovereignty crept into the message wrongly because of oversight at the Cypher Bureau in Delhi. The External Affairs Ministry tried to correct the mistake with another message to China, but was dissuaded from doing so on the ground that such a major correction would cause serious misunderstandings besides damaging India's reputation).

Facing imminent conquest, Tibet appealed to all the big nations of the world and to the UN for help. Nobody showed any interest. And nobody was to blame but Tibet itself. K.N.Raghavan, author of the latest book on Tibet (Vanishing Shangri La: History of Tibet and Dalai Lama in 20th century) says: "Tibet's inaccessibility, solitude and its unfriendly response to even the friendliest of overtures all combined to ensure that it would not receive any support from other nations during its hour of need".

Raghavan is not in unfamiliar territory. Author of the definitive Dividing Lines: Contours of India China Conflict, he has an extraordinary eye for detail and a gift to put complex issues in simple terms. He shows how the Dalai Lama began his rule with "a period of honeymoon" with China. He even visited China as an honoured guest in 1954, was ardently cultivated by Mao and appointed a Vice President of the Steering Committee of the People's Republic of China. But relations soured in a few years. When rumours spread of Chinese plans to arrest the Dalai Lama, Tibetans rose in anger against the Chinese. Amid chaos in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama and party managed to leave the capital in disguise and, sick and tired, entered India on March 31, 1959. Raghavan argues convincingly that China had allowed the escape in order to avoid the adverse world reactions his capture would have invited. With the Dalai Lama out of the scene, China "brought the entire might of the PLA to crush the incipient rebellion" by the Tibetans.

With a comprehensive and scholarly analysis of China's policies in Tibet after the Dalai Lama left, the soft power Tibetan exiles have been exerting on western intelligentsia and the Middle Way Approach conceived by the Dalai Lama, Raghavan provides an exhaustive overview of Tibet in its transformatory age -- an account that is both inspirational and sad. The resilience shown by the Tibetans wins our admiration but their homelessness leaves us feeling sorry for them.

The Dalai Lama, Nobel Prize and all, carried the helpless diaspora on his brave shoulders. But after him?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Our elections often field the worst of leaders. Kerala does it again for Chandy's people

Trust Kerala to make the impossible possible. It is a holy tenet of the Congress Party's culture that the High Command be implicitly obeyed; no one ever dreams of going against its wishes. Kerala's Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has not only broken the sacred code, he has actually bullied the High Command into accepting his wishes. Two ministers in particular had become steeped in corruption and Rahul Gandhi wanted to keep them out of this election. Chandy threatened that if the ministers were denied tickets, he himself would stay away. The blackmail worked. Ministers the public perceived as kings of corruption got their tickets.

The public can of course punish the politicians by voting them out. But the tainted Chandy ministers will almost certainly win. That is where Indian democracy's weaknesses remain unresolved. Only during one historical period since the Republic came into being did the electorate take a collective decision to throw out the tainted; after the Emergency, not only was the Congress humiliated across the board, but Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi were defeated in their own fortresses.

Barring this exception, our democracy's electoral record has been inauspicious, even perilous. To see the extent of the peril, we only have to look at UP and Bihar. Despite vulgar displays of megalomania at state expense, Mayawati gets re-elected in UP. The Mulayam Singh leadership takes mafia leaders into the cabinet; one of them kills a police officer and his only punishment is losing his ministership. In Bihar convicted criminals are taken into leadership positions in the ruling party. There were instances of gangsters contesting parliamentary elections from inside jails and winning handsomely.

Our politicians have become masters of the electoral game. From management of voters' lists to booth-control techniques, they know how to do what, leaving no chance to "amateurs". This is why citizens like Nandan Nilekani, Infosys co-founder, and Meera Sanyal, the distinguished banker, get defeated while underworld don Arun Gawli becomes an elected representative of the people. Don't forget that George Bush won his second presidential term on the strength of 537 votes in Florida where his brother Jeb, as Governor, oversaw widespread manipulations such as purging from the electoral rolls 57,700 names mostly black and therefore potentially anti-Bush voters. Strange are the ways of democracy.

In Kerala, despite Oommen Chandy's seeming victory, the situation has never been messier. He is the shrewdest political chess player the state has seen, but he might have overplayed his hand this time. For one thing, his party is split into myriad groups and many of them are bound to work against the approved candidates. For another, the way he forced the hand of the High Command will haunt him in the days ahead.

Hints have already come from Delhi -- that going against the High Command is not acceptable, that there will be a review of the situation post elections. That means that even if the Congress alliance manages to get a majority in the elections, the new Congress-led government will not have Oommen Chandy as its leader.

But is there a chance at all of so tainted a regime getting re-elected? Even last week fresh scandals were hitting the headlines. Yet another order to grant government land to private interests had to be withdrawn following public protests; audit report on last year's South Asia Games in Trivandrum has revealed financial irregularities on a massive scale. Oommen Chandy's best hope is that there is a general apprehension about communist boss Pinarayi Vijayan becoming chief minister. Vijayan is a party machine, not a people's leader like V.S.Achuthanandan. If the latter had been projected as the Left Front's chief ministerial candidate, victory would have been certain and decisive. But Vijayan who scares people has the party behind him with the backward-thinking Prakash Karat faction in Delhi backing him. The question boils down to whether people's desire to get rid of the Oommen Chandy regime is stronger than their desire to not have a Pinarayi Vijayan regime. The lingering possibility that it might be, at least to begin with, a V.S.Achuthanandan regime might tilt the balance in favour of the Left Front.

What a pity that ministers get easily drunk on power. Missing from their character is the inner refinement to realise that power used for the common good yields more satisfaction than power used to enrich oneself. They don't pause to think that the boast of heraldry, the pomp of power and all that wealth ever gave, await alike the inevitable hour.

Monday, April 4, 2016

If Donald Trump is America's most dangerous man, history is poised for some dangerous turns

Imagine Praveen Togadia becoming the prime minister of India. Or Vijay Mallya. That is the kind of scenario that is developing in the US with Donald Trump's apparently unstoppable race to the White House. He is full of ideological hatreds which he publicly proclaims. And he beats Mallya hollow in exhibitionist flamboyance.

Additionally, he has his own special characteristics as well that would be an embarrassment for a US President. He seems to cherish looking buffoonish and he can be vulgar in words and actions. He has had university education, though his grammar and syntax point otherwise. An academic research group said recently that his vocabulary was below that of 6-8 graders. But he is unfazed, saying that "I am representing a tremendous many many millions of people".

(Inadequate command of the mother tongue is no bar to the American presidency as all those who "misunderestimated" George Bush realise. People have assembled books and videos on Bushisms ranging from "you teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test" to "the great thing about books is that sometimes there are fantastic pictures". This man's murder of the English language is worse than his mass murders in Iraq).

Clearly the rise of Donald Trump marks an epochal change in American -- and therefore world -- politics. The two-party system that ruled America all these years is on the brink of collapse. That such an untypical candidate can capture so much popular support has shocked the system and stunned the Republican Party establishment. There have been incidents of violence in political rallies, clashes between Trump supporters and others, major Republican leaders conspiring to derail their challenger and Trump warning the conspirators that there would be rioting if backhand moves were made against him -- all unprecedented, and indeed unthinkable developments in US election politics.

The Republican Party's national convention (at which the party nominee for president is formally selected) is to be held in July. Given Trump's impressive support base, the Party establishment can stop him only by resorting to stratagems like "contested" convention and "brokered" convention. That would infuriate Trump and lead to unpredictable counter actions, changing American politics in drastic ways.

Why has the Trump candidacy divided Americans and the Republican Party so deeply? There have been dubious Republican candidates in the past and some had won, like Bush and Richard Nixon. In these cases the candidates had established political roots. Nixon had been Vice President earlier and Bush belonged to a political family. Donald Trump is a complete outsider. His experience is confined to real estate business and television. The rise of such an outsider is something that the establishment seems unable to stomach.

His stated policy positions alienate and frighten a great many people beyond party lines. He is against all minorities and Mexicans; he sees them as parasites. He opposes immigrants taking jobs away from Americans. He detests Muslims and says: "The IS is making $ 400 million a year on oil. I've been saying it for years. We need to bomb the oil". He has thrown hints that he might even be a White supremacist; he has been supported by the Ku Klux Klan. According to The Guardian of Britain, "President Trump could be as big a threat as jihadi terrorism to global economy". The Economist sees Trump's rise as a global threat. Many describe him as the most dangerous man in America.

For all that, America and the world have to confront the question: How come such a dangerous man is being supported by so many of his countrymen? This is where we will have to acknowledge the rise of new revolutionary waves among significant sections of Americans. White lower and middleclass segments of the population seem to be protesting at last against the entrenched liberal-rich sections that have controlled things with their big donations and commercial lobbies. There is resentment against the unending flow of immigrants, especially uneducated and unskilled Latinos, who take away jobs while contributing nothing to America. Elements even among the educated class resent ideas like free trade that help countries like China at America's cost. These are complex issues with multiple layers of realities. But they feed the emotions of a people who feel increasingly that they are more sinned against than sinning. To them Trump looks attractive with his slogan: Put the interests of America above everything else.

It's a new America. It's a new world. It could be a new war.